Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions will remain 100 percent confidential, and may be edited for length.
My boss said something so stupid and sexist and actually really rapey the other day, again, and I called him on it right there in the meeting. He said, “I’m sorry if you were offended.” He seems to think that’s an apology and doesn’t understand why I and a bunch of the other people in the office are still really pissed about it. He pulled me aside and said “I apologized, tell them to let it go.” I don’t think he really did apologize, and I think maybe if he did it would be better? There’s something I am having trouble saying or explaining properly, though. How do you tell someone (a straight white man someone) HOW to apologize for a big fuckup? Or make them? Or is he just beyond redemption? I’m still so angry at him.
Dear Brave Correspondent,
It is about to be Yom Kippur, the end of the most sacred holidays of Judaism – our Day of Atonement. Jews have a rather different set of teachings about atonement than most Christian traditions do – we have no confession and there is specific instruction that one cannot receive forgiveness from Gd for a transgression against another person unless one has acknowledged their wrongdoing specifically, sought that person’s forgiveness and, to the best of their ability, tried to make whatever restitution may be possible. Some examples of this are given: for an assault against someone’s good name, one is encouraged to do acts of charity in that person’s name, for example. The idea is, you do what you can to make it whole. I find it a rigorous process, but also an ultimately healing one. I also deeply appreciate how specific it is.
As an adult, I have done many, many wrong things. I have done most of them because I was thoughtless or misinformed or made a poor choice for a good reason, but I have committed a tremendous string of fuckups. One thing that being wrong a lot (so much) has given me is an opportunity to develop a formula for apologizing that I can share with you (and that perhaps you can share with your boss). I utilize this formula more for Major Transgressions than for the kind of workaday apologies that close relationships require – I don’t do all three verses and the choruses when I fail to take out the trash (though I should have when I insisted that a certain box of Band-Aids was definitely, absolutely, in the toiletries bag… and then discovered it had fallen out into the trunk after being rather snippy about it. Sorry, mister).
You feel uncomfortable about and upset with your boss and his “apology” because it has done zero of the things that an apology requires. He has not even said sorry for what he did, just that he’s sorry if people were offended – which does not contain any acknowledgement of his own role in the problem. It’s like when people say “I understand that mistakes were made,” instead of saying “I made a mistake here.” He’s got no idea about what the impact is, clearly, and he has no stated intention to do better (and certainly no plan at all about how that might be accomplished). So it’s no wonder that you’re not into this apology. It’s not an apology at all. It’s a copout of the exact kind that people listlessly proffer when either a) they don’t care that you’re upset or b) are afraid to be wrong and say sorry.
Anyhow. If I was writing a script for your boss’ sample apology, it would start out something like: “I’m sorry I said that women were only good for making sandwiches and making babies. It was a bad choice of an attempt at humor and I shouldn’t have said it.” Second, he should try to acknowledge impact, and reflect what the person has said about how it made them feel: “I’m sorry I made you feel uncomfortable and objectified with my inappropriately sexual and sexist comment.” After that, he should offer some choices about how he can make amends and do better in the future: “I can commit to being much more careful about my language in future, and I would like to do something that will help me become more thoughtful about sexism and rape culture generally. I have a few ideas, unless there’s something you’d like to recommend.”
At this point, I suspect that part of what’s happening is that your boss doesn’t want to admit to having said something misogynist or assaultive or both. Maybe this is because he doesn’t care. Maybe it’s because he thinks that if he says he did it he’ll get in trouble. Maybe he has tiresome man-damage about being wrong and apologizing. Whatever the answer is, it may affect how you feel about his lack of an apology. It also may affect what you choose to do next. Is there a human resources department where you work? Has somebody told them that this happened? Do you feel like you have a standing and/or the institutional power to make a report? If you do, this is the exact sort of thing that human resources departments are supposed to be for.
There are a couple of other things I would like to say about apology, while we’re talking about them. The first one is that if you are a person who needs to apologize, and you don’t know what you can offer that contains some assurance that you will learn from your mistake, you need to do that work yourself. If there is any possibility you can do the research, or ask some more knowledgeable people who are NOT the person you harm, you should do that. Don’t ask someone that you have transgressed against to teach you why what you did was bad and then take you by the hand and tell you what to do to fix it. Part of your apology here needs to be gaining some understanding of the entire situation.
Also, Brave Correspondent , you are not obligated to accept the first apology offered to you. No matter how sincere it is. To return to my faith tradition about apology, the instruction is that we can require someone to apologize three times on three separate occasions, sometimes translated as “in three different seasons,” before we are required to forgive them. Now, that is only true for the most serious kinds of transgression. It’s allowed if there has been grievous hurt. But it is true. On the first two occasions you can tell someone that you are simply not ready to forgive them for what they have done. The third time though, according to the Jews, you are required to forgive the person, and if you don’t they are not required to apologize anymore. Their responsibility to you is considered discharged.
One last thing about apology, especially in age where so much of our communication is visible to the public: it is important to apologize in public if you have been hurtful in public. I know – believe me, I know - that it is easier to handle the accountability process privately. I know that I do not like to have my mistakes pointed out publicly, at all. But I also believe that proper accountability for a mistake made in public owning it in public. If I was counseling your boss about his apology, I would tell him that he needs to make it in front of the same group of people to whom he made his terrible “joke.” Because here’s why: maybe some of those people weren’t offended. Maybe some of them think – or came away from the meeting now thinking – that what he said is a fine thing to say. The apology in this case doesn’t just serve to soothe the feelings of people who were hurt by it, it also serves as a potential teaching moment for the people who were not hurt. They need to know that what happened wasn’t OK, that it did hurt people, and then any ideas they might have had about it being all right to make jokes that perpetuate rape culture are terrible ideas and that those ideas should be sent to bed without supper.
I’m sorry this happened to you and your colleagues, that this guy went to Trump Town in his remarks and now you have to figure out what to do next. I hope he apologizes properly and learns his lesson. I hope you don’t have to have this in your world for long. But no matter what he does, good for you for saying something. You’ve done the best you could. Some days that quiet knowledge is all you’re going to get, but just in case it helps I would like to say that I’m proud of you from here, Brave Correspondent. You did a hard thing when you could have done nothing. Sometimes that’s the biggest kind of bravery there is.
Love and courage,